Last month, Special Olympics athletes from Orange County, N.C. won gold while representing Team Special Olympics North Carolina at the 2022 USA Games.
The national competition, which took place from June 5 to June 12 in Orlando, Fla., is held every four years. The 2022 games brought together more than 5,500 athletes and coaches from across the U.S. and the Caribbean to participate in 19 different Olympic-style team and individual sports.
Seventy-five athletes and Unified partners represented Team Special Olympics North Carolina at the 2022 USA Games. Unified partners are individuals without intellectual disabilities who train and compete alongside Special Olympics athletes. Special Olympics Orange County sent two track athletes and a UNC Unified basketball team to the Games as part of the North Carolina team.
The UNC Unified basketball team consisted of Special Olympics athletes and UNC students that met the coaches and athletes last summer through tryouts. Meeting weekly on Sundays in the Dean E. Smith Center, the team practiced and competed against other local teams to gear up for the USA Games.
Despite this preparation, the USA Games still marked a huge jump in the level of competition for the Orange County team.
“It was a little different because, when you play in North Carolina, we pretty much know all the teams that we have been playing against,” Jonathan Wilson, the UNC Unified basketball team’s head coach said. “We knew what their tendencies were. When we went down to Florida, we had no idea what we would be coming up against."
For the nine members of the basketball team and the two track athletes, the USA Games marked their first-ever appearance in a national event. For some, the trip to Orlando itself was a first.
“I had fun because I had never been out of the state of North Carolina,” basketball athlete Clyde Gattis said. “I wish we could stay longer.”
The team started off the competition on Monday with a 53-31 victory over Kentucky. With a sense of confidence coming off their first win, North Carolina sailed through the rest of the competition with wins over Texas, Ohio and Kentucky. In the championship game, North Carolina beat Florida 35-26 to win gold.